At Friday evening's branch meeting of North Staffs and East Cheshire's Cooperative Party, new MP for Stoke Central Tristram Hunt gave a brief talk on what the prospects of the Coalition government. Will they disassemble at the first hurdle or are they likely to go the distance?
He began with a potted history of previous coalition governments. The first coalition in modern times was the six month-long Fox-North coalition of 1783, a Tory-Whig lash up George III dismissed after nine months. The one 19th century experience of a coalition (during the Crimean war) was also an inglorious episode. Small wonder Benjamin Disraeli famously declared "England does not love coalitions". But given the two parties' duopoly in an adversarial system, any alliance between the two made little sense. Because this party system has survived in various permutations down to the present day, Britain stands out among West European nations in not having much experience of coalition government outside of war (Crimea, 1st and 2nd World Wars) and economic crisis (the 1931-35 national government notoriously presided over by Ramsay MacDonald, and the Tory/National Liberal "coalitions" prior to the war).
This is something not lost on the Tories and LibDems. Despite not being historically enormous, the deficit is dressed up as a mortal economic menace demanding extreme measures - such as a coalition - to get rid of it. They pretend it is an instrument designed to work in the national interest, but the colouration of cabinet and junior minister appointments owes more to political expediency than anything meritorious. This is even clearer when it comes to the coalition's constitutional plans. The Alternative Vote referendum is a Tory sop to those LibDems who are at best lukewarm over the cuts - even though the measure is unlikely to win, it might buy off a LibDem revolt while the first cuts package is going through parliament. Then there is the fixed parliament with its two thirds majority threshold for dissolution. And not forgetting the major boundary exercise which will, at a stroke, snuff out 50 constituencies. By pure coincidence the majority of whom are Labour-held seats.
That said, Tristram thought the coalition, as a piece of political machinery, is working well. Because this is an alliance of Orange Book LibDems (i.e. the party's dogmatically neoliberal wing) and the Tories, they already share a very similar outlook. It is this ability for the two to rub along nicely. If the coalition lasts the five year distance the personal and political friendships will help see them through, as well as their mutual culpability for the dark deeds they are committing. This is what his head thought, but his gut was telling him something else: it gave the coalition three years tops. Again, it comes back to the AV referendum. After it has failed many LibDem members will be wondering what they have got out of the coalition (apart from undying enmity and a deserved reputation for opportunism). Therefore it's likely the centre and centre leftish LibDems are the ones to give the coalition a headache. Meanwhile backbench Tories might moan and make themselves difficult, but not to the point of bringing the government down. Good Tories never put principles before power.
Moving on to questions, Tristram added that the Tories and LibDems entered the relationship without an exit strategy. While there has been some speculation about joint election campaigns (something that would screw Labour for the forseeable future), neither body of activists would stand for it - unless faced with the prospect of total wipeout.
Asked about the boundary review, Tristram thought this would cause the coalition innumerable problems within its own ranks. Many LibDems sit in marginal constituencies - a movement of a boundary here or there could tip them into the hands of the other parties. In addition, the loss of 50 seats will see many MPs from all sides of the Commons absorbed in internal selection battles from the middle of the parliamentary term on. Hardly a recipe for rebuilding public trust in politicians.
Another point Tristram made, which seems to be what many Labour MPs are thinking but I'm not entirely sure about, is that people like the coalition. It's becoming received wisdom that the public prefer to see parties working together rather than knocking lumps out of each other. I certainly haven't encountered this sentiment outside medialand, nor have I spoken to anyone chillaxed about losing their job or pension rights because it's a coalition wielding the axe. But if you believe there is a mood favouring consensus, Ed Miliband's decision to appoint Alan Johnson over the consensus-challenging economic policies favoured by Ed Balls makes sense. But it doesn't make it any more right.
In all a worthwhile look at the problems the coalition face. Unfortunately, in my opinion Labour lacks the leadership to make the most of them. Just as it was under Thatcher the strongest opposition will come from *outside* parliament.